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Digging in with Joel Tippens of Fair Share Garden Urban Growers

A few months back we ran across the Go Fund Me page for Fair Share Garden Urban Growers established by Joel Tippens. We were really interested in the concept of urban and community gardens but Joel’s organization moves beyond digging in the dirt simply for the love of tilled earth. Joel’s advocacy is to bring awareness to community food security issues in low income neighborhoods since the 90’s. We asked Joel to share with us some of the deeper concerns with the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in poorer areas and the greater burdens the impoverished experience with the industrialized food systems in the U.S.  Here’s what he had to say:

Can you share some facts about your background in community involvement and why and how you established Fair Share Garden?

 Joel Tippens- I guess my journey with food began back in the 90's living in inner city Miami and getting to know several of our neighbors who were homeless. Every week I would cook up big pots of homemade chili and serve it up to about 75 to 100 folks who came to know me as 'the chili man.' But the first work with vegetable gardens began a few years later in Daytona Beach where we established our first community garden with a handful of folks.

We were asked the next year to help a local church start a community garden on a vacant lot that they owned, start a schoolyard garden with 4th graders at an elementary school, and another food garden project at a charter high school for teenage moms. Many college students worked with us to gain community service hours. In 2011 we moved Fair Share to Chattanooga to begin developing projects in low-income neighborhoods.

Can you explain what is meant by the concept of “food justice?”

J.T.- I think the simple definition of food justice has to do with folks having a choice in the food they want to serve in their household and a voice when the choices are limited. Many residents of low-income communities in our cities lose that choice and have no voice once the grocery store pulls out. These communities are identified as 'food deserts', which is a poor description because there is usually plenty of food-stuff for folks to eat, and that's the problem.

The choice of food in the community is limited to fast food joints, and non-perishable at the party store, gas station, or Dollar General. Veggies and fruit are usually absent. No one wants to be preached at about what they should be eating, but when your choice of food  is limited this in this way it becomes a social justice issue.

The impacts on the health of the residents is significant with rising rates of heart disease, childhood diabetes and obesity. But our current food system does not function to feed people for wellness, but functions to make profits for the shareholders of the corporations that control it.

The system won't be changed anytime soon but we need to give more people a voice in how things can be changed for the better, for everyone. Particularly low-income communities of color. Someone once said that charity provides left-overs from the table, but justice provides a place at the table.

What is sustainable urban agriculture?

J.T.- Basically, urban agriculture can be defined as growing the farm within the city right where the people live. 'Sustainable' can mean many things, depending on who is using the term. All I know is that if you are depleting natural resources or damaging the environment then the method is certainly not sustainable.

Industrialized extractive agriculture is ruining what was once the best farmland on this continent and I don't know how we can wrestle the land out of the hands of those controlling that system. But one thing we can do is redeem unused land and make it productive. Sustainable urban agriculture can interrupt the waste stream and turn food scraps into compost, harvest rainwater for irrigation, and repurpose many free and found materials for building infrastructure.

The challenge will always be to what scale can the methods be used successfully, but many successful projects are time-tested and can be replicated in cities around the country.

What has Fair Share Urban Growers been doing lately to spread awareness of your campaign?

J.T.- The fist year we were very good at keeping a low-profile and except for a few key partners, very few people knew who we were at all. This was an intentional strategy based on a philosophy of simply getting to work and doing something rather than spending the time talking about what we were going to do.

We don't do any promotion for the sake of promotion. People learn of our work when we invite them to a meal and a movie event to raise awareness about urban agriculture. People learn of our work when we invite them to our plant sale which is held at the youth farm in the heart of the food desert.

Currently we are running our 'Truck Farm Tour' which is an old '75 Ford pickup planted with herbs, strawberries, and veggies. We roll the truck out to promote local restaurants that support local farmers and encourage people to start a backyard garden by demonstrating how much can be grown in a small space- even the bed of a pickup truck. Our truck farm is one of a fleet of truck farms inspired by an awesome little film created by Ian Cheney called 'Truck Farm'.
 
What skills or life lessons does operating the farmstand teach young people?
 
J.T.- The youth farmers operate the farmstand as part of the job-readiness training that the program offers. They work through developing a business plan for a small farm, a marketing strategy to reach the community, and learn a bit about pricing and profits.

Some of the youth lack excitement about the actual growing and production required, but get a big kick out of watching people pay for what they have harvested. I think it helps them recognize the value in the service they are providing the community and contributes to a greater sense of self-worth.

On your webpage you encourage students to their community service hours in at Fair Share. Do you have many students that continue?
 
J.T.- We have dozens of students volunteering with us on service projects and usually as a group. This year we will be offering positions for long-term internships for college students to serve as mentors in the youth farm program.

What do students need to do to participate in the Urban Cultivators Class?
 
J.T.- This was the second year of the Urban Cultivators Class and it is a collaborative partnership with another nonprofit educational farm- Crabtree Farms. This is a 12-week comprehensive training open to anyone and a fee is charged at registration.

You have a community garden growing atop what used to be an asphalt parking lot. Can you tell us more about that project?
 
J.T.- This project began at the invitation of the Ridgedale Neighborhood Association. While looking for a suitable vacant lot for starting a community garden, I was challenged by the idea that the lot didn't necessarily have to be 'suitable', and that transforming a parking lot would make a powerful demonstration.

We spread a thick layer of wood chips over the area and installed raised beds of topsoil, compost bins made from discarded wooden pallets, made container gardens from tires, and built a small pavilion for harvesting rainwater.

This year the gardeners have formed a 'cooperative' and will be raising produce to sell at the Grow Hope Farmstand. Most of the gardeners are recent immigrants to Chattanooga from Africa.

What do you think is the biggest threat to farmers in the U.S.?
 
J.T.- I think the system is rigged. A handful of corporations control our industrialized food system from production to distribution to market and small family farms face tough odds. What's even more disturbing is the loss of Black owned farms because of systemic racist policies and lending practices during the last century.

It has taken a generation to create this mess and will probably take a generation to begin changing it. We desperately need a new crop of young people, particularly people of color, who will put their hand to the plow and turn things around.

What do you think is the single most useful way for people to make a difference when it concerns availability of local food?
 
J.T.- We should all ask ourselves why the food movement is so white. So long as the only support for local farms and farmers markets comes from the stereotypical white foodie, the food movement will remain a popular trend. But trends don't bring lasting change. What we need is a revolution that addresses the deeper issues of racial and economic justice.

What is your hope for Fair Share Garden’s future?
 
J.T.- I think our mission statement is a good summary... "We envision a community of empowered, self-determined people breaking down barriers of race, class, and culture to defeat poverty and hunger in Chattanooga."

Were the donated t-shirts helpful in anyway?

J.T.- t-shirts have been a tremendous asset! We have volunteers wearing them and have sold them at our fundraising events! Mine is already beautifully stained and filthy as a work shirt, as it should be!

To donate to the Grown Hope Youth Farm vist: http://www.gofundme.com/growhope

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